The Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) has all too often felt like the little brother of the big-ticket events like Sundance, Toronto, New York, and Cannes. The Rose City tends to get the hand-me-downs from those festivals, bringing them to local audiences weeks before they get wide release in the States or at least get some recognition for being Oscar contenders. That’s not to disparage the work of the NW Film Center in putting this together year after year. Without the budgets the aforementioned festivals command, there’s little chance of pulling in huge exclusives and national debuts.
And what the organizers do bring in betrays a keen eye for finding that delicate balance between healthy ticket sales (Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, which opened the fest, for example) and lesser-known directorial voices like Ask Hasselbalch from Denmark or Hong Kong’s Adam Wong. I still couldn’t help but notice at least one glaring hole in the 2014 PIFF: the only films from Africa came out of the northern region that borders the Mediterranean. No sub-Saharan voices to be heard. Aside from that small stumbling block, there was much to dig into and what I did see was inspiring, infuriating, and only occasionally boring.
Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (Arnaud des Pallieres)
Many of the films featured in this year’s festival deal either directly or metaphorically with how the global financial crisis has revealed a vast divide between the upper classes and the 99%. I can’t say for certain whether that is what director des Pallieres had in mind when he adapted this story for film, but it’s difficult to not see the corollary between the plight of the titular horse trader and that of the proletariat of the modern world. If it is connected, the message is loud and clear: There’s only so far the working class can be pushed before they strike back with a vengeance. In the case of Kohlhaas, he’s seeking to make a local prince pay for horse theft and abusing his wife. It turns into a bloody, brutal affair, but one that never seems less than justified. Credit too to Mads Mikkelsen for continuing his amazing work of late as the brooding, incorruptible title character.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney)
One of the coups of this year’s PIFF was nabbing this film well before its theatrical release date, a decision I’m sure Magnolia Pictures was happy to make in hopes of generating some advance buzz for this rather niche comedy. In it, the titular character — an unctuous, self-serving former TV personality still scrabbling for fame as he hosts a radio talk show in a small constituency of England — finds himself thrust back into the spotlight when a co-worker takes the station hostage after a recent layoff. It’s a tidy, if unspectacular, comedy that succeeds when it relies on the sly performance of Steve Coogan, who seems to thrive when finding the humanity in such otherwise unflattering characters as Partridge. Where it stumbles is in its attempts to make larger statements about the nature of modern celebrity and the corporatization of media.
The Good Road (Gyan Correa)
A great reason to attend film festivals like this is to get a glimpse into parts of the world that rarely go documented in mass media unless a tragedy of some kind occurs. In this case, it is a stretch of road outside of Mumbai where the stories of a young family, a pair of hapless smugglers, and a small girl abandoned at a brothel intersect. There is a larger point to be found in The Good Road about the dismaying treatment of children in our modern culture, particularly the unnervingly young women who populate the bordello. But the real impact of this film derives from the insight it offers into the lives of those living on the outskirts of India’s most populous regions. The drawn, desperate faces of the men and women huddled together at roadside cafes provide the most haunting images of the year to date.
Ida (Pawel Pawilkowski)
The ghost of World War II still lingers in European cinema, and understandably so considering the damage done to the lives of millions of people. This film from Polish director Pawilkowski concerns that same ghost, haunting a pair of women — one, a soon-to-be-confirmed nun learning the truth of her Jewish heritage and the death of her parents in the war; the other, a judge (and the nun’s aunt) who tries to keep the demons of the Holocaust at bay through her work and her addiction to alcohol. In lesser hands, this story could have been a treacly, chest-beating affair, but Pawilkowski and his lead actresses maintain the perfect steady and deeply felt emotional pitch.
Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen)
Rarely has the immigrant experience, and the struggles of the middle class in a collapsing world economy, been depicted with such thoughtfulness as director Chen manages in his debut feature. The film centers on a Singaporean family and their Filipino maid, pinging between each member’s individual stories to provide a deep look at how the Asian financial crisis of the 90s sent so many into a personal tailspin. The heart of the story lies with Teresa (played to quiet perfection by Angeli Bayani), the maid who has to suffer the slings and arrows of her employers’ young son Jiale while trying to support her family back home. That the whole film is a perfect reflection of the situation so many people are facing here in the U.S. only adds to the depth and humanity of Chen’s bravura.
Proxy (Zack Parker)
One of the more popular features of the festival, PIFF After Dark, made a return this year with a half-dozen cult/midnight movies, including this challenging yet ultimately disappointing thriller. The film follows a young woman reeling from an assault that killed her unborn child and the strange support group she joins as a result. The storyline unfolds aptly enough but is hampered throughout by hackneyed acting and scriptwriting that ignores the “show, don’t tell” maxim. I’m not sure if Parker didn’t trust his audience to keep with this fairly knotted plot, or if he simply needs an editor. Either way, one of the few letdowns of the festival.
Remote Area Medical (Jeff Reichert & Farihah Zaman)
You’ll likely be hearing a lot more about this documentary once it sees wider release, as it emerges at a time when the country is embroiled in debate about our healthcare system. The film follows the volunteer doctors and nurses, and the many patients, who descend upon the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee for a two-day pop-up medical clinic. The simple fact that the titular nonprofit, which began as a way to bring healthcare to people in developing countries, has to focus its attention on the U.S. populace is indictment enough of our nation’s screwed-up priorities. Also tough to witness are the desperate situations of the hundreds of Tennesseans who arrive to deal with ailments as minor as new glasses to a potential cancer diagnosis. The joy so many of them express at finally being free of pain or worry leaves you with the most bittersweet of feelings.
Transit (Hannah Espia)
The global debate concerning immigration examined from another angle, this time via the plight of a Filipino family struggling to stay together in Israel. A new law is passed in the country allowing the government to deport the young children of these immigrants, as they are providing no services to the Israeli people. The point is made clearly enough, but hammered home a little too hard by the relatively untrained actors. Espia does herself few favors as well by viewing it through a rather melodramatic lens and shoving the narrative through an unnecessary storytelling device — relating the story in chapters with one starting from the same point in time à la As I Lay Dying.
We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson)
My favorite film this time around is a fine return to form for the Swedish director who started his career off strong before wandering into experimental territory with his last two features. Here, he hews the thematic territory of his debut Show Me Love: the plight of young women coming of age. Here, the two lead characters, Bobo and Klara, find themselves not through sexual orientation but through their mutual love of punk rock and their decision to start a band. This leads to some discussion of gender inequality in the music world, but what really drives the story is the joy and agony of the teen years. So much about this film rings true, from awkward experiments with alcohol to trying to make sense of one’s first romantic attachments. If you don’t find something that resonates with your experiences growing up, you are likely not reading this website.
What Is Cinema? (Chuck Workman)
The question of the title is an important one, but I wouldn’t say that it gets answered in any appreciable way by this documentary. What does come out of it is a roughshod view of the past 100+ years of cinematic achievements. Director Workman does a fair job of giving us the rough guide to these waters, weaving in interviews from Michael Moore, Chantal Akerman, and Jonas Mekas. But for all its delights in hearing these icons talk about their influences and the wonder of the cinematic language, this barely scratches the surface, leaving a literal world of film out of consideration.